As the entire world is grappling with the challenge of COVID-19, the Greater Horn of Africa region is being ravaged by the invasion of desert locust worms. Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti have been the worst affected countries due to the locust worms. This is the worst invasion for Kenya in the last 70 years whereas for other countries in the Horn, they have not experienced such a deadly invasion by desert worms in the last 25 years. As per United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), currently more than 19 million people in the region are vulnerable to the high level of food insecurity and urgent efforts are required to deal with the emerging problem.
Locust worms are usually found in the semi-arid and arid parts of the world, which receive less than 200 mm rainfall annually. The region stretching from Sudan to Pakistan provides favourable climatic conditions for the infestation of locust worms. Therefore, it is not surprising that in this instance of invasion; locust worms have not only spread to Horn of Africa but have also been posing difficult questions for governments in the Middle East such as Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These countries have already launched control operations to limit the spread of locust worms and reduce the damage caused by them. Some bands of locust worms are present in southern Iran and Pakistan as well. In fact, sensing the seriousness of the threat posed by locust worms, Pakistan had taken action such as aerial spraying 20,000 hectares of agricultural land and also declared national emergency as early as in February 2020. It is expected that, if not controlled, by mid-June the invasion could spread to states such as Chad, Niger, and Oman from the Horn of Africa. For India, although the locusts have already arrived in parts of Rajasthan from Pakistan, their threat is not as serious as it is in case of the Horn of Africa. However, in late June-early July, swarms of locust worms are likely to migrate from the Horn of Africa to India.
The effects of the invasion of locust worms have been particularly severe for the Greater Horn of Africa region. Since January 2020, billions of locust worms have descended into the region and in fact, darkened the skies in parts of the Horn. These grasshopper-like insects move around in dense swarms and there are about 80 million locust worms in a swarm spread over a square kilometre. The area of swarms can vary from less than a square kilometre to several hundred square kilometres. In many instances, the swarms formed over Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia have been so thick that people could hardly see through them. What is more, locust worms eat anything edible and usually end up eating up large amounts of agriculture produce such as maize, wheat and sorghum. As per Ethiopian government officials, they ‘found locusts on bushes, on pasture, irrigation plantations, even in forests’ and that half a million cropland was damaged by locust worms. The farmers of the East African region are genuinely worried due to the rapid spread of locust worms. There is a sense of fear as well as insecurity. The only effective way to control these locust worms is to launch aerial pesticides-spraying operations. However, it has side effects and may end up killing other useful insects like bees that are crucial for pollination.
To source environment-friendly pesticides, affected countries will have to depend on countries such as Japan, the Netherlands and Morocco. However, due to the COVID-19 crisis, supply chains have been disrupted; cargo flights have become more expensive as well as unreliable. Therefore, it has become really difficult for the countries of the Horn of Africa to get necessary pesticide supplies from these far-away suppliers. States like Kenya are also struggling to find required amounts of money and equipment to control the locust worms. It has already deployed five aircraft whereas Ethiopia has deployed four aircraft to contain the spread of locust worms. However, the efforts by governments have not been sufficient due to the lack of availability of pesticides, difficult geography and the ability of locust worms to adapt to pesticides. As a result, the population in these countries is concerned about the impact of locust worms.
In January 2020, before the COVID-19 crisis exploded, FAO had estimated that at least $ 70 million was required to fight this current invasion. However, it has been able to secure only $ 10 million. If the current wave of locust worms goes uncontrolled there is a possibility that their numbers could grow by 500 times by June. Already, the Greater Horn of Africa region was ravaged by heavy rains and flash floods in late 2019. About 3 million people were severely affected in the region from Sudan to Tanzania. Interestingly, these heavy rains have been a contributing factor to the phenomenon of locust worms as they created favorable conditions for the rapid growth of locust worms. Therefore, the region has been hit by flash floods followed by the invasion of locust worms which has compounded the problems of food security.
Countries of the region like Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen have already been facing severe famines in the last few years owing to political instability and civil wars. Locust worms are likely to further worsen the situation. Civil war in Yemen makes it difficult to undertake co-ordinated action to stop the spread of locust worms and therefore, the country is at a greater risk. Moreover, although Somalia had declared national emergency to deal with this crisis, it has proven extremely difficult to mount control operations in territory controlled by Al-Shabaab terrorists. In the last decade, the greater Horn of Africa region has faced severe successive droughts in 2010-11, 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2019. In 2019, across 14 countries of East, Southern and Horn of Africa, 45 million people were at the risk of food insecurity. Climate change and a specific climatic condition known as the Indian Ocean Dipole are responsible for the recurring droughts in the region. Moreover, governments in the greater Horn of Africa region have not been able to launch successful programmes and design efficient policies to effectively deal with the persistent problem of food security. Therefore, the latest crisis is a welcome opportunity for further promoting regional co-operation and international efforts to deal with the problem of locust worms as well as address the food security-related concerns. The invasion of locust worms and the growing challenge of COVID-19 are only going to make this situation even more difficult.
COVID-19 is gradually spreading in Africa and as of now, Sudan (1365 confirmed cases) is the worst affected country in the Horn of Africa region. Somalia (1054), Djibouti (1210) and Ethiopia (256) too have experienced a steady increase in numbers. To limit the spread of COVID-19, countries have imposed lockdowns, border restrictions and global movements have come to the halt. The economic effects of COVID-19 on Africa are likely to be very severe. The World Bank has estimated that sub-Saharan Africa will face its first recession of the last 25 years and the economic growth is likely to fall to negative 5.1 percent. The economic crisis generated by COVID-19 is likely to push millions of people in poverty and millions will face the problem of food security. The Greater Horn of Africa, already ravaged by successive droughts, flash floods and the devastating invasion of locust worms is likely to face daunting challenges in 2020. With a limited state capacity, contracting economy, political instability and diverted focus, the region may perhaps end up facing the worst effects of both, COVID-19 and the invasion of locust worms.
*Dr. Sankalp Gurjar, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
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